There are many fights and quirks intertwined with the National Defense Authorization Act. One of them is the A-10 Thunderbolt II (sometimes called the “Warthog”) close support aircraft. A lot has been made of this particular aircraft, given the Air Force’s desire to phase it out of combat and eventually replace it. Congress, however, appears to have different plans.
An amendment to the NDAA introduced by Martha McSally (R-AZ-2) in the House Armed Services Committee prohibits the Air Force from using appropriated funds to retire, store, or replace any A-10 aircraft—effectively mandating that the Air Force maintain at least its current stock of 171 A-10s. Planes, of course, need pilots (well, most of them do), so the amendment also requires that the Air Force not “make significant reductions to manning levels with respect to any A-10 aircraft squadrons or divisions.” This means that not only does the Air Force have to keep the planes, it has to keep flying them too. The Air Force has warned that maintaining the A-10 will mean cuts to other programs.
This isn’t an indefinite measure, though. The amendment calls for an outside study commissioned by the Department of Defense to explore options for retiring and replacing the aircraft. The Air Force can continue to explore retirement of the A-10—a clearly articulated goal—but it must do so on Congress’s terms.
What, then, motivates Congress? While mandating the continued operation of the A-10, seemingly against the wishes of the Air Force, might paint Congress as a backwards facing, wasteful organization in contrast to the Air Force’s progressive, cost-saving efforts, this definitely isn’t a fair take on the relationship. After all, the Air Force also recently asked for 1000 more Air-Launched Cruise Missiles at a cost of $9 billion. So, it’s not as if the Air Force is desperate to save money at every turn.
Two possible Congressional motivations stand out: First, the A-10 is currently operated by 16 Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command squadrons throughout the United States—those are plenty of constituent jobs. Second, members of Congress were likely impressed by the A-10’s record in Iraq and Afghanistan, where its close support role was used to support troops in combat. While this might not represent a statistical study of its effectiveness, the A-10 has an obvious reputation of saving lives. Thus, Congress likely views A-10 retirement as something that isn’t yet broken, and doesn’t need fixing. The Air Force disagrees.
It’s a frustrating situation, but it also calls out the need for checks and balances in military priority setting. We’ll find out more about the fate of the A-10 when the House NDAA is voted on and reconciled with the Senate version.
Image Credit: U.S. Air Force